Patrick McCully had a revelation in India more than a decade ago. The campaign director of International Rivers Network witnessed indigenous people in Gujarat state, India, risking their lives to protest construction of a dam on the Narmada River. All were eventually arrested, but government officials and engineers covered it up, claiming the case had been settled peacefully, he said.

This event in 1992 destroyed his faith in the aid policies of international organizations, politicians and industry, which he says are only looking out for themselves, and set him on a course of crusading against large-scale dam construction.

McCully, 37, will address several sessions of the World Water Forum, which began Sunday in Kyoto, Osaka and Shiga prefectures, as a representative of IRN, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that works to halt destructive river development.

“One of the main problems is that the way (these interests) are being promoted is very undemocratic,” McCully said, as most proposed projects are only for the benefit of some politicians and the firms involved, and do little for the country or local residents.

Large-scale dams and water privatization are expected to be among the most contentious topics addressed by the eight-day forum.

McCully said he hopes to convey the message that dams and water privatization will not help achieve the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve by 2015 the proportion of people who do not have access to or are unable to afford safe water and sanitation.

There are better and cheaper ways to tackle water-related problems than damming rivers, he said, citing time-tested systems of collecting and storing rainwater.

Such methods can be used in developing countries that have abundant rainfall but lack large-scale dams, he said. Rainwater harvesting is increasingly drawing attention as an environmentally sound approach to securing a sustainable water supply.

McCully said much of the electricity from hydroelectric dams in developing countries is used inefficiently, with most of it being stolen or lost during transmission. He suggested such countries should consider renewable power sources, including wind, solar and geothermal energy, to meet growing demand.

McCully isn’t automatically opposed to any river dam, provided all parties involved agree on the necessity. But only after fully assessing the need for a dam, and reviewing all options to meet demands in an open way, should a dam be considered, he said.

“(This process) can work not only for dams but for all types of water and energy, and all types of development projects,” he said.

Asked about the issue of privatizing the water supply, McCully said, “We are talking about 1 billion people who don’t have access to clean water and 2 billion people who have no access to sanitation,” but the private sector cannot meet their needs because they are too poor.

Other low-cost technologies are available to solve water problems, he said.

“There’s no big mystery in meeting” the Millennium Development Goals, he said. “It’s certainly a challenge, because a lot of people have to be supplied (with water), but the technology is there, the money is there. It’s a question of political will.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.